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Holiday Hiring Forecast: Weak

coal drawing by franke james, using licensed photo of shopping cart ©iStockphoto.com/ Yegor Tsyba

BY JOHN A. CHALLENGER

Bleak conditions for retailers as the holiday selling period approaches are expected to keep seasonal hiring well below last year’s level, according to the annual holiday hiring forecast by global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

Retailers are facing an uphill battle this year. Consumers are tapped and credit is increasingly harder to come by. Meanwhile, retailers’ shipping costs are ballooning thanks to gas prices, and the weak dollar is raising the price of imported goods. With profits already getting squeezed, most retailers are going to be reluctant to take on the additional cost of extra staffing.

While Challenger anticipates some holiday hiring this year, it is expected to fall well short of the 727,500 seasonal job gains averaged over the previous decade. In fact, if spring hiring is any indication, this could be the weakest holiday hiring season since 2001, when retail employment grew by only 585,300 jobs, as consumer and retailer confidence plummeted in the wake of September 11th.

Spring hiring is typically much lower than holiday hiring. However, there are significant seasonal employment gains every year in May and June, as teenagers on summer vacation become fixtures at the nation’s shopping malls as consumers and workers. From 1987 through 2007, retail employment grew by an average of 216,000 in May and June. This year, retailers added just 134,000 jobs, a 20 percent drop from the 168,300 added in 2006. It was the lowest May-June hiring total since 1980, when retailers added just 95,500 summer workers.

Spring hiring is not always an indicator of holiday hiring, because conditions can change significantly between June and October, when retailers typically start to ramp up staffing for the holidays. Unfortunately, the retail landscape has not improved much since the spring. If anything, things have worsened.

Last year, with the extent of the housing collapse still unknown, retail employment grew by 698,300 between October and December, which was 6.5 percent lower than the 747,000 seasonal workers added to retailers’ payrolls in 2006, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Seasonal hiring in 2007 was the lowest since 640,000 retail workers were added in 2003.

In 2007, the damage from the housing collapse seemed contained to a few related sectors, including the hard-hit financial sector. After holding off on hiring in October, optimistic retailers added nearly 458,000 workers in November, a record high for that month. However, December hiring fell below the decade average, when it became clear that there was not going to be a late season surge in consumer spending.

We will probably not see another record November in terms of retail hiring. Last year, there were some reasons to be optimistic. This year, there appears to be no doubt that consumers are in deep trouble and will be on strict budgets during the holidays.

The good news for retailers is that if there is a sudden change in consumer spending power, spurred by a second stimulus check, for example, they will be in a good position to enact a round of last-minute hiring. The labor pool is flush with qualified candidates who undoubtedly would be eager to earn some extra holiday spending money and take advantage of employee discounts.

The best opportunities for seasonal job seekers will be at the large discounters like Target and Wal-Mart, which will be heavily favored by cost-conscious consumers this holiday season. However, job seekers may have to look beyond the sales clerk positions for available spots.

The big box stores need extra workers on the floor, but they also need extra workers in their shipping facilities and overnight stocking positions. Opportunities also exist outside of retail, in areas like catering and with shipping companies such as UPS and FedEx.

Online shopping also continues to grow and could provide job seekers with opportunities during the holidays. Last year, online holiday sales increased 19 percent to $29 billion.

We could see similar growth this year, as consumers stay home and shop from their computers in order to conserve gas and avoid the tempting in-store displays that can quickly drain the holiday spending budget.

When job seeking in retail or any other sector, it is important to remember some key interview guidelines: dress appropriately, be on time, show enthusiasm and follow up. According to one hiring manager, the biggest mistake job applicants make when seeking a holiday position is “demanding a specific schedule from prospective employers.”

Temporary workers must be prepared to be flexible, whether it is hours or type of work. Either can vary as the holiday season progresses.

ADVICE FOR HOLIDAY JOB SEEKERS

Start now
· It is not too early to secure a position for the holidays. Begin by determining what types of retailers are suited to your experience and skills. If you are an avid golfer, that could be of help in securing a job in a sporting goods store or with a golf merchandiser.

Become a fill-in
· Some retailers put many of their full-time back-office people on the sales floor during the holiday season. That means temporary help will be needed to ensure that back-office work continues. You can also get a foot in the door by offering to start working now as an on-call fill-in for vacationing staffers.

Befriend store manager, staff
· Retailers may not make any holiday hiring decisions until the latest possible moment. However, you can get a head start by frequently visiting the stores where you might like to work. Befriend employees, particularly the managers. Your enthusiasm about shopping there will pay off later when you mention that you are looking for holiday work. Let it be known you and your family like to shop there. That could help secure a position.

Do not overlook behind-the-scenes jobs
· Only a portion of the retail jobs available are at the cash register or on the sales floor. There are a wide array of opportunities in back-office positions, including shipping, receiving, warehousing, accounting, information technology and security. There are also countless job opportunities in areas related to the support of retail, such as transportation, marketing, consumer product manufacturing, etc.

Offer to be a floater
· Chain stores with several locations in your area may be interested in using you as a substitute for employees who call in sick or are on vacation. Let the hiring manager know up front that you are willing to be wherever the store needs you on any given day.

Promote computer skills
· More and more stores are changing from traditional cash registers to computer-based systems that allow stores to manage inventory more efficiently. Being comfortable and skilled in computer use should be a major selling point when applying for a position.

Dress for success
· Even though employees may not dress up for their jobs, it is always a good idea to wear your nicest clothes to interviews. If you own a suit, wear it. It will make you stand out among all the applicants who come to interview in jeans and T-shirts.

Be available to work after the holidays
· While stores need extra help during busy seasons, many would still prefer to hire someone who plans to stay longer. The cost of hiring and training someone who will be there only for a few months is costly. So, by letting the employer know that you would like to remain after the holiday season, you are sending a message that you are committed and not just there for the discounts.

BIGGEST MISTAKES MADE BY HOLIDAY JOB SEEKERS

Not Dressing Appropriately.
· You do not have to wear a business suit. However, you do not want to show up in torn, baggy jeans and an oversized basketball jersey. If you are a retiree, make sure you wear updated styles.

Arriving Late to the Interview.
· In a competitive market, late arrival immediately eliminates you from the interview process. Particularly in retail, where adhering to one’s scheduled hours is paramount, arriving late to an interview tells the employer that you will be unreliable.

Demanding a Certain Schedule.
· Asking to work a certain set of hours during the interview is a big no-no. As a part-time seasonal worker, you will be the lowest person on the totem pole and have the least leverage when it comes to requesting a special schedule.

Asking About Money During Interview.
· Let the employer bring up money. The only thing you should be focused on during the interview is providing information that proves you will be a good addition to the staff.

Not Mentioning Relevant Experience.
· As a teen, stay-at-home mother or a retired CPA, you may think that you do not have any experience worth mentioning in an interview. Chances are good that you do. Whether it was organizing a pep rally at school or running the church bake sale, you want to mention all experience that will tell the employer that you are capable, responsible and able to organize and prioritize.


John A. Challenger John A. Challenger is chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., the global outplacement consultancy that pioneered outplacement as an employer-paid benefit in the 1960s. Challenger is a recognized thought leader on workplace, labor, and economic issues.

Challenger 2008 Holiday Hiring Forecast: The Word Is Weak © 2008, Challenger, Gray & Christmas;


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